Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Phoenix film critics debate new Aronofsky film

Avant garde filmmaker Darren Aronofsky releases his first film since "Requiem for a Dream." Read critic David Tell's series of takes and exchanges on what he feels is already a widely misunderstood film.

Upon viewing the advance screening:
I’m a pretty mystical guy, and I left the theater after seeing “The Fountain” almost identifying with the people who, nearly 40 years ago (wrongly) thought the latter third of “2001: A Space Odyssey” was a boring, inexplicable, pretentious head trip. The basis for the feeling, though, is that Darren Aronofsky’s latest film--his first since the awesome “Requiem for a Dream” six years ago--shares pacing, portentousness and psychedelic production design with the “trippy” adventure past the moons of Jupiter in “2001.” But looking at “The Fountain” from Marci’s probable perspective, I can see it’s really about love, joy, priorities, imagination, and how it really doesn’t matter whether we both fit in the tub together very well. Very few people are going to “get” this film, and they’re probably going to be pretty disappointed for the most part. Because, despite the billings, it’s not really about a conquistador who finds the “Tree of Life” (or Fountain of Youth) and lives to encounter his lady love again in a future age. That part of the story is analogous to the parallel literary plot in Neil Labute’s “Possession,” and, as in that film, the “real” story takes place in the present, and the other narrative reflects it to make a larger parable. In this case, it’s about not turning death into something it isn’t: either a release from the prison of the body or a disease to be conquered. It’s about life, and therefore about accepting death as an ending of our living connections with our loved ones. (“Eternal life,” in this context, is about being part of the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth [though not as the same entity]--and acceptance of that reality.) And, as in “Possession,” “The Fountain,” putting things in context and prioritization, is cautionary about love: In that film, part of the point was that women ought not to over-idealize love at risk of exclusively feminizing it, leaving no real, authentic role and place for a man. Here, the point is that men’s’ tendency is to “practicalize” love, which tips it too far into the masculine realm and sensibility.

Response from a correspondent:
"The way you describe this it ALMOST sounds like a "chick" flick. That leaves me out! lol"

"Campaigning" message by David to fellow film critics after viewing a screener DVD of the film, a second look:
Phoenix Film Critics Society (PFCS) colleagues:
After re-viewing "The Fountain," as well as reading additional reviews, I am campaigning for it in a limited sense, convinced that Aronofsky is perhaps the closest current thing to a Kubrick heir, in at least two ways: the limited output and apparent careful crafting of the visual experience, and being widely misunderstood. (I.e., the possible pretentiousness and pseudo-profundity some people will find in the film.)
Even Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal in last Friday's edition succumbs to the red herring that the film, at its topmost narrative level, is about a man who lives across the centuries after finding the Tree of Life (or Fountain of Youth). My wife, viewing the screener (couldn't attend the press screening) also thought it was quite apparent that the "eternal life" thing is not what publicists and marketers are making it out to be--not even as a superficial understanding of "what happens" in the film.
Pretty clearly, the sole "real" story takes place in our present, with Tom as the cancer researcher and Izzy his wife dying of the brain tumor. Of the other two stories and incarnations of the characters, the "conquistador" one is simply the literary analog and subtext, underlining and explicating the themes of the present-day story. This is a little like the main story vs. the literary backstory in Neil LaBute's "Possession." Then, in the third aspect of the film, the Hugh Jackman character in the "snowglobe" is something like his spiritual self, undergoing psychic evolution after, presumably, having been killed by the Mayan guardian of the Tree of Life.
This latter, "spiritual" Hugh Jackman, in turn, serves as a metaphoric explication (and "completion") of Izzy's book, "The Fountain": In the present story, she has urged him to "finish it," and this phase of the film shows how he reaches that "ending": by evolving, even involuntarily, past an exploitative, self-serving understanding of what death is and what "life everlasting" really means, toward acquiescence in being part of the cycle of life, death and rebirth (though not as one's same conscious self: as part of the broader life-cycles of intertwined Nature). This "ending," this realization is also fulfilled in the present story by High Jackman dropping the sycamore seed ball (or whatever species of tree) into the ground over Izzy's grave.
I hate to expound and pontificate as if posting on an imDb message board (well, OK, no, I don't--it's what I do ...), but I feel ceasing to misunderstand this film so profoundly as many people are doing is essential to beginning to appreciate it. Like "2001: A Space Odyssey," it is a kind of masterpiece, even if not always a conventionally appealing and readily cognizable cinematic experience.
In this way I am hoping to help rescue it from being overlooked for whatever awards or accolades it may rightly be considered for.

Response from a fellow PFCS critic, who may remain anonymous unless she wishes otherwise:
It's an interesting argument regarding the meaning of the "snowglobe" parts of the film. But if this were only part of Izzy's fiction that Tom was completing, there is no explanation for the flashbacks and the visions of Izzy with him in the globe. Tom wouldn't have written those into the story to complete Izzy's book. And if the conquistador had truly been killed by the Mayan guardian, his body wouldn't have entered to find the tree of life; only his spiritual self would have been able to do that.
The evidence in the film suggests that it is indeed a future Tom in the "snowglobe". It is implied that his research went on to conquer death, which is why he is there in the future, travelling through space with a technology that we cannot imagine (what miracles of science could be discovered if the world's greatest minds didn't die off?). Further evidence that this is him and not part of the conquistador story is the fading tattoo around his ring finger, a marking which he creates shortly after Izzy's death. He then continues to tattoo his body to mark time, not unlike the rings of a tree, in parallel with his transfigured lover.
It also shows there is a spiritual side of Tom that has chosen to believe the parts of Izzy's conversation that suggest she might still live on through a tree planted over her grave. He takes pieces of her bark as a sacrament to keep this faith alive (a way of taking her inside him), and his destination is the dying star which she suggested was the place where life is reborn; although she accepted death, he is re-interpreting her tale of Mayan legend as a means of bringing her back to life as he remembered her.
I believe the point of the film is that the search for longevity is an unnecessary detour in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
Throughout the film we are wondering about that tree -- is it the actual tree of life, from which Tom was able to discover the secret of longevity? Or is it Izzy, transformed according to the story she told him earlier? I believe the answer to that is found at the end of the film, when Tom buries the seed in the snow above Izzy's grave. It is the only explanation for why that particular scene was placed AFTER the scene where Tom's future body was obliterated in the nebula.
At first it seemed ironic that only after Tom's death did the tree spring back into full bloom, but I think it was meant to illustrate that both Tom and Izzy were reborn within the tree in that instant.

David's response:
I am glad I have engaged you in a thoughtful exchange over this film. I don't presume to know you well, but I think I know you well enough to understand that I won't be able to change your thinking!
However, your points notwithstanding, I also still disagree. I suppose there could be evidence for both interpretations; however, I think mine requires fewer assumptions and less bending things in the film out of shape to make them fit.
In my interpretation, everything that happens after the Mayan guard swings his flaming sword at the conquistador should be taken as reflecting Tom's (decreasing?) misunderstanding of the issues surrounding life and death. His seeming to walk past the guard to discover the tree, tattooing himself to track time, the fading tattoo of the ring, Izzy's appearances are all instances of his psyche's illusorily struggling toward the truth--e.g., Izzy there is remembered, in her chiding him over his failing to pay attention to the here and now while she was alive and he could have gone to enjoy the first snow with her.
In the end, the fact that the tree sap leads to his absorption into vegetative life is, again, perhaps his actual* dissolution into the all, as well as a fulfillment of the humaner, wiser points Izzy's book is tending toward. (As in Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," you could assume all the time he spends in the snowglobe actually takes place in the few moments after his death by the Mayan's sword before life leaves him--subjectively expanded to seem like years or ages to him. In my view, beginning with his striding toward the tree of life, it is all his subjective illusion, though an evolving one.)
The very fact that you acknowledge his "snowglobe" is rising to the Mayans' nebula of death and rebirth should actually lead you to lean more toward my view, it seems to me. That fact of the film is something I forgot to mention in my earlier campaigning e-mail as adducing toward my interpretation.) To think he is just actually, physically traveling there in a little terrarium with the miracle tree (with Izzy popping in in the garb she was wearing in the "present" story, chiding him with the same chastisements), just seems overly credulous and uncritical to me. It's all "really" just part of his "soul's" awakening before his reabsorption into the All. ("Death is the road to awe.")
Whatever the facts or presumptions raised in the film about the miraculous effects and additional outcomes of the tree-sourced compound in the lab, I think that is another red herring; I don't think we are supposed to end up believing it pans out. Again, think about his ring: its whereabouts are never revealed. The point is not where it ended up, the point is that he put it aside, actually and symbolically forgetting that his priority should have been to spend time with Izzy in the time she had left, not to leave her, trying to beat the clock to save her.
Anyway, again, I don't expect you to agree with all this, but thanks for responding. I hope it at least gives you an alternative perspective from which to realize the professed theme of eternal life in the film also has other ways of being understood, perhaps toward a different wisdom. And again, I don't think the film is as likable if taken as much at face value, interpreting the "snowglobe" Tommy as a future literal and living instance of the "historical" conquistador.
*I use "actual" advisedly, as the "snowball" Tommy is merely an extension of both the fictional conquistador (as well, indirectly, of the present-day researcher Tom), in my view.
P.S. Oh, finally, re-reading your first paragraph, I don't think Tom necessarily literally finishes writing Izzy's book and I didn't mean to say or imply that. He "completes" it in the sense of understanding it, and fulfilling its point and meaning, in realizing his errors, and planting the sycamore seed, etc. So, again, no literalistic explanations of what "happens" in the snowglobe are needed to correctly interpret the film.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Willingly I accept. The theme is interesting, I will take part in discussion.